Streeton Streets Ahead at Smith & Singer’s Winter Auction

It wasn’t just our Impressionist master Arthur Streeton who was a high achiever at the Smith & Singer Sale in Sydney last night. Prices far exceeded expectations for several other important Australian artists, which also continued the trend of interest in women artists, namely Ethel Carrick Fox, Margaret Olley, Emily Kngwarreye and Cressida Campbell, and also for male painters John Kelly and Lin Onus.

Although the sale comprised just 66 artworks (not counting a withdrawn Rover Thomas) many artists were represented by multiple entries, including Arthur Streeton with 7, Sidney Nolan 5, Margaret Olley and Cressida Campbell with 4 each, and Arthur Boyd, John Olsen and Albert Tucker with 3 artworks on offer each. The offering of 29 works from 7 artists out of a total of 66 perhaps demonstrates better than ever the secondary market’s reliance on well established names to sell stock and secure the highest prices.

It’s rare for very early Arthur Boyd paintings from the 1930s to realise the kind of prices that his later works fetch. However, Jetty at Rosebud (Lot 1) painted when the artist was just 18, achieved an exceptional $65,000 on estimates of $45,000-65,000. A highly comparable work Figure on Beach with Jetty, Rosebud, 1938, was sold by Leonard Joel in June 2021 for $22,000.

Although Albert Namatjira’s watercolours can fade over time, his reputation grows stronger by the year. Given that we have the exact date that Namatjira was out painting North of MacDonnells (Lot 2) on 17th July 1953 and some excellent Anthony Hordern & Sons exhibition history from 1954 to boot, the still very strong colours of this watercolour exerted an irresistible pull, selling for $48,000 (est. $30,000-40,000).

The first of the four paintings by still life queen Margaret Olley was the best and from her best period. Collectors were out in force to pluck this rather delicious example of her work titled Plums and Zinnias, 1975 (Lot 3) with hopes of $60,000-80,000; it sold for $120,000, double the low estimate.

The second Olley, Still Life with Objects from 1990 (Lot 8), was a very brown and perhaps for this reason less appealing example, but nonetheless sold for $80,000 the low estimate. Poppies (Lot 39), again a later work, also sold on its low estimate of $60,000. No-one however was there on the night for her interesting and very early Portrait, 1947 (Lot 38) with quite modest estimates of $20,000-30,000.

A less common, but appealing interior scene of a bathroom in yellow by John Olsen (Lot 4) just snuck across the line, selling for $40,000 (est. $40,000-50,000), whilst a late, very large and decoratively attractive Charles Blackman canvas Victoria Reading with Flowers (Lot 6), 120.5 x 181.5 cm, sold for $74,000, considerably more than the $25,000-35,000 hopes.

One of Sidney Nolan’s Antarctic series of paintings received its place in the sun: Ice and Sea, 1964 (Lot 9) was estimated at a cautious $60,000-80,000, and sold for the way above figure of $130,000.

Surprisingly, neither works by Justin O’Brien (lot 10 and lot 11) were sold under the hammer; particularly Still Life, 1959 (Lot 10) offered a cornucopia of imagery to engage the eye, but sadly, no-one had the eye for it that night.

No such hesitation however for the assurance that an Australian art collector gets from a Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly (Lot 14). The conservative estimates of $15,000-25,000 on this work on paper from 1967 were smashed by a hammer price of $40,000.

Time to talk about the star of the night: Arthur Streeton. Smith & Singer continue to be ardent ambassadors in the offering and sale of his work in the auction room. In his review of the Streeton exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2020-21, John McDonald wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald “Looking at those dry, restrained works of the 1930s alongside the pictures of the 1890s, it was clear how much dynamism had been lost”.

Streeton Painting Venice
Arthur Streeton, Evening Light, Venice, sold for $1.25 million at Smith & Singer, the 5th highest price ever for the artist.

There is no such sense of loss of dynamism in the auction room, where the desire for Streeton’s painting just seems to keep growing. However interestingly, Australian collectors will often prefer a late Australian Streeton above an early British one which exhibits the dynamism McDonald is referring to.

The British scene Strood Hill, 1904 (Lot 18) had the added benefit of provenance of Dame Nellie Melba, which perhaps made this painting as Australian as could be. Offered at $35,000-45,000, it more than satisfied buyer and seller at $65,000.

Another Brit pic Melrose Abbey, 1912 (Lot 19) provides the viewer with an abundance of drama and light, and it also resonated strongly with buyers when one eventually secured the work for $90,000 on expectations of $50,000-70,000.

Streeton’s Blackwood Tree (Lot 25), an Australian painting from 1934, had no problems also selling above its hopes of $60,000-80,000 for $90,000.

Looking at two more Brit pics A Kentish Pastoral, 1904 (Lot 34) and Unloading Bricks, Kew, 1905 (Lot 35), both exceptional works by Streeton, sold for $60,000 (est. $55,000-75,000) and $80,000 (est. $80,000-120,000) respectively.

The Smith & Singer sale presented two more examples of the artist’s dynamism at auction: Lilies and Bells, 1935 (Lot 24), a large 64.2 x 102 cm and late painting carried realistic estimates of $200,000-300,000. This significant trophy picture encouraged big bidding, which didn’t stop until reaching $420,000.

Speaking of trophy paintings: it was Deutscher + Hackett who secured the highest ever price for a painting by Streeton, The Grand Canal, 1908, one of his “honeymoon” paintings measuring a massive 92 x 168.5 cm which sold for $2.5 million in April 2021. Smith & Singer holds 3rd place for Streeton prices for one of the artist’s largest and finest Sydney harbour scenes painted in 1907, just a year before his honeymoon, sold in 2016 for $1,7 million.

Evening Light (Venice), 1908 (Lot 23) is nowhere near as large as record holder The Grand Canal, however it offers a commanding enough presence at 50.3 x 76.1 cm. Selling for a hammer price of $1.25 million, (on estimates of $500,000-700,000), it was catapulted into the 5th highest place for a Streeton painting at auction.

Two exceptional paintings by husband and wife painters were offered side by side. Emanuel Phillips Fox’ Blanche et Noire (White and Black), 1912 (Lot 20), a particularly attractive and large work at 100.3. x 81.3 cm, sold nicely above the low estimates for $380,000 (est. $350,000-550,000), but underlined the lack of collectors for Fox’ more traditional style of painting against that of his wife Ethel.

Ethel Carrick Fox’s highly impressionistic beach scene created just a year earlier Sur la Plage (on the Sands), Dinard, 1911 (Lot 21), was offered with the much stronger estimates of $600,000-800,000 for this much smaller painting of just 34 x 46 cm and selling for an extraordinary $975,000.

This is now the second highest price at auction for a work by Ethel Carrick Fox, after Smith & Singer’s sale of the much larger The Market, 1919, in August 2019 for $1.2 million.

The highest price for a painting by Emanuel Phillips Fox is Monastery, San Lazzaro, 1907, sold by Smith & Singer in August 2017 for $870,000.

Another surprise of the evening was the sale of John Kelly’s Man Lifting Cow 1, 1994 (Lot 49). Perhaps we are starting to see a renaissance in values for the artist at auction. The highest price for a painting by the artist was $105,000 for Cow Depot Waiting to be painted II, 1994, set in 2005 and lasting for 14 years. In August 2019, Smith & Singer achieved a new record of $120,000 for Man Lifting Cow (Large), 2017, and Bonhams sold Three Cows in a Pile, 2014, in August 2022 for $115,000.

These prices are now looking like small change after Man Lifting Cow 1 achieved a record breaking $290,000.

No surprise to followers of first tier auctions of late would be the successful sales result for William Delafield Cook’s Gundagai Revisited, 2006 (Lot 50), another monumental landscape that made a monumental $190,000 (est. $150,000-250,000).

We wonder when we will achieve peak pricing at auction for Cressida Campbell. As yet, there seems no sign of a let-up, as demand far exceeds supply with the majority of buyers seeking works in the secondary market. Like all leading auctioneers, Smith & Singer is happy to help them out where they can. With prices ever rising, the temptation to re-sell relatively soon after purchasing, whether at auction or through Philip Bacon Galleries, must be high.

The four works at Smith & Singer all sold, and for a combined total of $1.155 million hammer price.  Garden Island, 1990 (Lot 51) sold at its low estimate of $200,000. The also early but more typical Interior with Anemones and Lemons, 1992 (Lot 52) last sold with Deutscher + Hackett five years ago in 2017 for $80,000. It more than doubled this figure, selling for $195,000 (est. $120,000-180,000).

It was a very similar story with Interior with Cat, 2010 (Lot 53 ), last sold by Smith & Singer in 2019 for $240,000. It managed an equally impressive $420,000 on estimates of $300,000-400,000, which matches the recent record price for Campbell set by Menzies in March this year for The Verandah, 1987.

The more abstract and perhaps more challenging dimensions of Glass Carafe with Pink Stem and Fern, 2016 (Lot 54) was no deterrent to anxious collectors. Estimated at $180,000-220,000, this more recent work climbed to $340,000, also considerably exceeding expectations and putting it into second highest place at auction for the artist.

Exceptional prices were also achieved for the two highly revered Aboriginal painters Lin Onus and Emily Kngwarreye. With so many paintings appearing for sale after relatively short ownership, it feels like collectors are taking advantage of the continuing bullish art market. Lin Onus’ Guyi Bulgabula (Fish and Lily), 1992, (Lot 55), was sold by Smith & Singer in November 2015 for $180,000, and now seven years later, it sold for $525,000 (est. $250,000-350,000). This is a remarkable result for Lin Onus who already does consistently well in the auction room, representing the third highest auction price for the artist.

Emily Kngwarreye’s strong Untitled (Wild Yams), 1996 (Lot 57) and painted in the last year of her life, would have to be the sleeper of the night: estimated at $60,000-80,000, it achieved $300,000, or five times the low estimate.

Interestingly, the auctioneer claimed a new auction record for the artist Jordy Kerwick. Auction records for Australian artists are just about always set in their homeland of Australia. This is not the case however for Jordy Kerwick who lives in France and whose paintings have been achieving ever higher prices overseas.

This year alone, Phillips in New York sold an untitled work from 2021 for US$190,000 (AUD 275,000) on 19th May, whilst Christies Hong Kong achieved HK$1,700,000 (AUD 313,000) on 27th May 2022 for Chic Imagery, 2021. However it was Sotheby’s New York who set the world record at auction for this Australian artist at US$220,000 (AUD 319,000) for Le Tigre, 2020, on 11th March 2022.

On estimates of $60,000-80,000, the last lot of the Smith & Singer sale Rimbaud (Rainbow Flower), 2019 (Lot 67), managed an impressive $110,000 hammer price, but far from the heady prices of the international auction room.

Let’s therefore also leave the last word to Jordy Kerwick: “The auction room is scary”, he is quoted as saying in a recent interview in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Article exclusively for Australian Art Sales Digest